Alexis Ffrench has high ambition. This exceptional pianist and composer who trained at the Purcell School, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy, wants to bring joy to a world of troubled times. He also wants to change the way people perceive classical music and to help make it more inclusive and democratic, more relevant to the society in which we live.
“I was watching the Last Night of the Proms recently and was struck by the lack of diversity in the audience” he says in the thoughtful manner in which he considers everything. “The next day, a commentator said: ‘Who says classical music is dead?’ and I was taken aback. There are no new audiences coming to classical music and I want to change that. It’s incredibly important to me. We all have a duty, no matter what colour we are, to speak out and encourage positive change.”
With aspirations as bold as those, it’s fortunate that Ffrench has the personality, dedication and talent to bring about such a change.
Ffrench displayed the skills of a musical prodigy when he was little more than a toddler: “When I was four I started playing on the dining room table, because we didn’t have a piano.” he says. He copied the actions of a pianist, even though he had never had the opportunity to see one perform. In his head he was performing his Dad’s Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley records. Within a year Ffrench was jotting down string quartets in a little red book.
“That was a theme of my young life: knowing music before I was taught music,” he says, smiling at the memory of a talent that staggered his Jamaican parents. “I remember them saying: ‘He thinks he’s Mozart…’ They bought me a piano – a battered old thing which arrived on the back of a truck. My parents quickly realised I could play anything I could hear; I had perfect pitch.” All this before he’d even started school.
From the age of seven until he was eighteen, Ffrench played in church every Sunday and at weddings and funerals, on high days and holidays. “That informed my ability to improvise. One Christmas my dad asked if I could incorporate his favourite song, Johnny Matthis’s ‘When A Child Is Born’, into the church’s processional music.” When no thunderbolt arrived and the roof didn’t cave in, Ffrench knew he was onto something.
His natural-born adroitness on the piano took him to the best music schools in the country: the Purcell School of Music, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal Academy of Music, where his talents shone. He could write down even the most complex musical score by ear. “When I hear music, I see it,” he says. Even in these great music institutions Ffrench was outpacing some of his teachers, and all of his peers, except for one, his dear and talented friend, Chris Duke, who was to sadly take his own life. Ffrench always seeks to honour his friend’s memory and has been a judge on the panel for the prestigious Christopher Duke Memorial Prize for young pianists.
His success has made Ffrench a Spotify-era oddity: a classical musician who has had over 50 million streams of his independently released music. Now this sharp-dressed man with a laser-focus resolve that belies the fairy-dust in his fingers is ready to step things up. Earlier this year he signed with Modest! Management, home to a brace of all-conquering pop acts, including Little Mix, Olly Murs and Niall Horan.
Says Ffrench of this inspiring collaboration with Modest!: “I love their ambition – it matches mine. They see my music as being able to reach a broad, mainstream audience in the same way as their pop artists. They see no delineation. In fact, my music might have fewer limitations, and the team at Modest! are clever enough to see that.”
The first phase of Alexis Ffrench’s partnership with Sony Music is mapped out by three singles, starting with ‘Bluebird’, which will be accompanied by a video featuring a stunning ballet performance from Alexis' daughter, Savannah, who was a 2nd prize-winner in the UK in the International Dance World Cup, Paris.
“I wanted to write something with a certain immediacy that spoke to people and connected with them, as that’s always at the forefront of my mind. The training for a classical musician is steeped in words and academia but my main aim was always to communicate with people and I am happy to have found that voice”
He adds: “Bluebird, for me, is filled with a variety of influences, from Debussy and Satie, to simply being home with my family. It is born out of improvisation. I wanted to write something that expressed a certain innocence. There’s so much trauma around us right now and I wanted share a moment of calm and beauty. There isn’t enough of that in the world.”
Two further singles will follow – with orchestral, choral and contemporary production elements – leading towards an album in 2018. Ffrench will be aiming even higher and is currently in discussions with potential collaborators to cross-pollinate genres and demonstrate that the perceived gap between classical and pop isn’t so big after all.
“It’s going to be a huge album,” he says with passion rather than ego “in terms of its broad appeal and the way it crosses over all genres to reach all audiences. In the near future, I would love to look out at Last Night of the Proms and see a welcome mixture of white, brown and black faces, with people of all backgrounds. That would prove to me that classical music is alive and adaptable and I see myself as an artist who can help to lead the change.”